On a three day historic visit, President Obama hit a home-run for India. Anyone watching these events in person would be considered lucky enough to witness rare history in the making. In addition to the symbolism of the moment – India’s 65th anniversary of the founding of the constitutional republic – Obama as the representative of the oldest constitutional democracy spoke to the enduring concerns of the Indian polity.
He connected India with the US in a seamless manner, creating linkages between caste and race, gender equality with democracy, poverty and economic opportunity, and India’s diversity with its ability to shape the 21st century in concert with the US.
President Obama seemed by far the most globally connected president the US has elected in many years. We weren’t around when Washington, Jefferson or Franklin walked the earth, but in listening to Obama one could hear the ‘old voice’ of the founders, who believed that in the founding of the constitutional democracy they were shaping the future of the humankind for time immemorial. The experiment began in Philadelphia in 1789, part of the original 13 colonies, carries on in many of the former British colonies today throughout Asia and Africa.
Obama spoke of his Kenyan grandfather who was a cook for the British, while linking Gandhi’s struggles with Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. He said where a Dalit caste, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, could write the constitution of India anything is possible.
He recounted his joy at watching so many women soldiers and cadets marching in the national parade. He said he wanted to bring his daughters to India for a visit someday. One of the magnificent floats at the parade displayed “Women Warriors Conquering the Everest.”
He made a pitch for middle class values to the Indian audience, urging them to work to alleviate poverty, while acknowledging that India has come a long way already in expanding middle class to more than 300 million people.
He spoke about India’s human capital – younger population, religious and cultural diversity, skills and entrepreneurship – in shaping this century. He described how the US is ready to partner with India on a whole host of projects. Agreements were reached here on civil nuclear deal, climate debate, infrastructure, smart cities, defense, educational exchange, and greater business investment.
All this discussion of democratic ideals and values generated nervous reactions among the Chinese, whose state media declared that the Republic Day events with Obama were a mere charade. The Chinese media recalled that the US had banned Mr. Modi for ten years.
Leading up to the events, the Indian media ran stories about how Pakistan would try to disrupt the events out of sheer rivalry. Nothing of the sort materialized, but the security surrounding the events was very tight and almost overwhelming. Even journalists were disallowed from carrying pens or pencils to the parade ground for security reasons.
Many Indians on the streets and at the parade watched the events with pride, at times through the thick of fog and rain, with the backdrop of nationalistic songs from a bygone era, blaring through the modern hi-tech speaker systems and flat screen televisions.
Pandit Nehru’s own favorite song “Aye mere watan ke logon ….” filled the air with timeless nostalgia. Many martyred soldiers, now fighting terrorist threats at the border, were honored with the Ashoka Chakra and other military honors.
It was heartening to observe so many US Congress representatives sit through the rain, huddled under golf umbrellas and rain gear for almost four hours. It showed the dedication and resolve towards India’s emerging role and power.
While the president made a triumphant sixer, to use a cricket analogy, for the Indian democracy and industry, now the hard work has begun. Will the nuclear deal get mired in red tape again? Will infrastructure projects take off the ground on time? Will Prime Minister Modi be able to deliver in the short term? These were the questions on everyone’s mind after the pomp and festivities were over.
“What’s another speech between friends,” the president chided the audience at the CEO summit, which included Pepsi’s Indira Nooyi, Mastercard’s Ajay Banga, and the Ambanis of the Reliance Group, held at the Taj Hotel. His delivery was pitch-perfect and complemented the Bollywood lines he delivered later at Siri Fort to a younger college audience, “Senorita, Bade bade deshon mein …. you know what I mean.”
Kal Penn, the star of Mira Nair’s “Namesake,” who shares the same last name with Prime Minister Modi, said he was excitedly happy about the India trip and that it was a huge success.
President Obama said while he may not be able to steer some of the big initiatives to completion himself, but Prime Minister Modi who is new in his role may be able to see them through. The unpredictability of the long term outcome of this summit notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Obama’s historic visit will serve as a landmark for indo-US relations for many decades to come
For the sheer range of his vision, bolstered by his own cultural biography, as the historian Douglas Brinkley has agreed, Obama will be seen in history as the first global president who ushered in America’s global age. Obama’s concerted push for India as the strategic partnership for the 21st century in the rising Asian region is a testament to this truism.